The 2014 NFL playoffs are humming right along, with an incredible Wild Card Round fading into the distance and the upcoming divisional matchups garnering our full attention.
The NFL’s version of the “Elite Eight” promises to be a thrilling round featuring four great games that showcase some of the league’s best teams—all vying to move one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Let’s take a look at how that road looks for each club, plus make some predictions on which contenders will advance to the conference championships.
|Round||Date (Time)||Visitor (Seed)||Home (Seed)||Broadcast/Stream Info|
|Divisional||Jan. 11 (4:35 p.m. EST)||New Orleans Saints (6)||Seattle Seahawks (1)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 11 (8:15 p.m. EST)||Indianapolis Colts (4)||New England Patriots (2)||CBS|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (1:05 p.m. EST)||San Francisco 49ers (5)||Carolina Panthers (2)||Fox|
|Divisional||Jan. 12 (4:40 p.m. EST)||San Diego Chargers (6)||Denver Broncos (1)||CBS|
|AFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||CBS|
|NFC Championship||Jan. 19 (TBA)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
|Super Bowl XLVIII||Feb. 2 (6:30 p.m. EST)||TBA||TBA||Fox|
|San Francisco 49ers||5-1|
|New England Patriots||15-2|
|New Orleans Saints||14-1|
|San Diego Chargers||14-1|
The AFC West was one of the best divisions in football this year, and two of its teams will be clashing for the rights to move on to the AFC Championship Game.
The San Diego Chargers were fortunate to even get into the postseason, needing four straight wins and some luck in Week 17 to lock up the No. 6 seed. However, this seems to be the team of destiny as it marched into Cincinnati and dispatched the Bengals handily in a major wild-card upset.
That victory earned the Bolts another trip to Denver, a place where they prevailed in a do-or-die game against the Broncos in Week 15 to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Quarterback Philip Rivers acknowledged that his team will have some confidence stemming from that improbable 27-20 Thursday Night Football win, which doubles as the only loss at Mile High for the Broncos during the 2013 campaign.
The veteran signal-caller spoke at length about the upcoming matchup after his victory in Cincy, as per Bengals.com:
We will be confident, but we have to be careful not to be over-confident, and we won’t be. Just because we won there a few weeks ago doesn’t mean anything. Cincinnati came to our place and won too. It doesn’t mean anything, but it will give us some confidence knowing that we’ve gone there and won before. They have the best quarterback of all time, one of the best offenses of all time, and a defense that really gets after it and feeds off that noise. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason, but we will go in there hungry and fired up, and give it our best.
Which team will win?
Don’t be surprised if lightning strikes twice for the Bolts. As Rivers said, the Broncos offense is firing on all cylinders with Peyton Manning under center, but the defense is vulnerable. The future Hall of Famer was ousted early in his first and only playoff appearance with Denver last season, and it is certainly possible that happens again.
The Chargers are tough and already proved they can get it done on the road against their divisional rival, so don’t be surprised if they pull off another shocker as an underdog.
Moving to the other game, the New England Patriots are playing host to an Indianapolis Colts squad that is coming off a historical comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs.
As the News-Sentinel notes, the Colts' return from a 28-point deficit was the second-largest in playoff history, trailing the 1993 Buffalo Bills' 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers.
While the Colts were downright fortunate enough to mount that much of a comeback, it is as much a testament to poor coaching decisions and awful second-half play from the injury-riddled Chiefs as it is to Andrew Luck’s poise.
Those types of miracles won’t happen against a disciplined Pats team led by head coach Bill Belichick. The team’s defense may not be the best, but it never conceded more than 31 points in 2013. The Colts, on the other hand, allowed a Kansas City offense—without Jamaal Charles, the focal point of its attack, for a majority of the game—to put up 44 points in the narrow wild-card loss.
Expect the Pats to move on after a frigid night game played outside at Gillette Stadium. The dome-based Colts won’t stand a chance in this one.
Predicted AFC Championship Showdown: San Diego Chargers (6) at New England Patriots (2)
While the top four seeds in the NFC all didn’t advance, the four teams with the best records in the conference find themselves in the divisional round.
The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers rested easy over Wild Card Weekend due to much-deserved bye weeks, while the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers took care of business on the road to set up rematches of 2013 regular-season games.
New Orleans eked out a win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the first road playoff win in the history of the franchise, and now has to travel to CenturyLink Field to continue its Super Bowl dream.
Seattle lost just one time at home all season and has a number of impressive wins in the Pacific Northwest. One of those came in Week 13, when the club dismantled the Saints on Monday Night Football, 34-7.
Quarterback Russell Wilson clearly had the New Orleans defense figured out, putting up 310 yards and three touchdowns on 22 of 30 passing attempts, while also rushing eight times for 47 yards.
However, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is instructing his team to forget about that sound victory and prepare for this Saints squad from scratch, per ESPN’s Terry Blount: "We start all over again. It has nothing to do with what happened before. We don't care about that. Obviously, we learned and gained information for the game, as they did, but we start from scratch."
Although the playoffs are inherently different, you can expect the results to be similar when these two foes meet again. Seattle’s top-ranked defense is simply too great a challenge for the Saints to overcome, especially away from the Big Easy.
In the other matchup, the 49ers are once again travelling—this time to Charlotte to take on the Panthers.
They’ll have a chance to avenge their 10-9 loss in Candlestick Park back in Week 10, a game that Carolina won due to a dominant defensive effort. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was terrorized throughout the afternoon, getting sacked six times and throwing an interception while completing just 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards and no touchdowns.
Kaepernick should be in line for a better performance while riding a wave of confidence after a last-minute victory over the Green Bay Packers, even if the game is being hosted in hostile territory.
Which team will win?
Add in Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s playoff inexperience—this is his first trip to the postseason after three seasons in the league—and you have the recipe for an upset. The 49ers are road-tested and hungry to get back to the Super Bowl after last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Don’t be surprised if they parlay that into a trip to the NFC Championship for the third straight year.
Predicted NFC Championship Showdown: San Francisco 49ers (5) at Seattle Seahawks (1)